BBC3 will go off air in March as BBC Trust finally approves plans for closure

The Trust has ordered BBC1 and BBC2 to gear their output more strongly to younger audiences when the channel closes but admits that 740,000 viewers who only watch BBC3 could be lost when it goes and attracting talent will be more difficult

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BBC3 will cease to exist as a television channel in March after the BBC Trust formally approved plans to close it.

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No new programming will air on the channel from the end of January, when the station effectively becomes a promotional tool for the online service that will replace it. The formal date for the launch of BBC3 as an internet channel is 1st March 2016.

The Trust said that it was a difficult decision to make and was “finely balanced”. Its report on the closure referred to estimates that 80% of the 925,000 of BBC3’s mainly young audience who don’t watch other BBC channels could be lost to the Corporation following the closure. 

That represents a loss of 740,000 viewers to the youth-focused channel, although the Trust said it hoped to retrieve these audiences via the online service and through BBC3 programmes shown on BBC1 and BBC2.  Of the 740,000 viewers who don’t watch other BBC channels, 540,000 are aged 16 to 34.

The Trust also acknowledged that the termination of BBC3 as a broadcast channel will come about earlier than the BBC wanted and would have an adverse impact on content. Top BBC3 shows of the past few years have included the comedy Bluestone 42, supernatural drama Being Human and the Bafta-winning documentary series Our War, which looked at the Afghanistan conflict through the eyes of young soldiers.

In a statement, the Trust said it recognised the widespread opposition to the closure as well as other drawbacks.

“Not everyone has a reliable internet connection and for many young people, television remains important,” it said. “Furthermore the loss of the linear platform may result in less exposure for new shows and make it difficult for the BBC to attract and nurture talent.”

But the Trust concluded that the balance of argument fell with the plans by the BBC executive to close the channel and make a saving of £30m to invest in new programming, mainly drama.

It said: “Trustees concluded that there is clear public value in moving BBC3 online, as independent evidence shows younger audiences are watching more online and watching less linear TV. The move will also contribute to the significant savings the BBC is currently making.”

There are conditions attached to the decision, however.

The Trust has increased the obligations on BBC1 and BBC2 to show BBC3 online content at a variety of times, including primetime.

BBC1 and BBC2 will meanwhile be required to make more distinctive programmes aimed at younger audiences.

There is no defined quota of such shows but the BBC Trust says it will review the main channel’s provision of youth programming in 18 months time and could impose quotas if it is not happy with what the BBC is offering younger audiences.

The Trust says the general aim is for two hours of “long form” BBC3 programming on BBC1 and BBC2 each week, “across the schedule”, though it is not forcing a quota on BBC management.

When RadioTimes.com put this to the BBC Trust its representatives admitted it was unable to estimate how many viewers will turn off BBC3 altogether by refusing to watch its content online or on BBC1 or BBC2 but that it expected the figure of 80% to be reduced by its strategy.

“What was expressed [in the 80% figure] was a possible loss of reach and it depends how fast and extensively BBC3 online is taken up and how successfully the BBC3 programmes and wider commitments to younger audiences on the two flagship channels succeeds,” said Suzanna Taverne, chair of the Trust’s Services Committee which led the assessment of the executive’s proposal to close BBC3.

Fellow Trustee Richard Ayre added: “That 80 per cent figure is… a possible projection of what would happen if we closed BBC3. We have put in place all the mitigations… that are aimed at reducing that figure substantially… Of course as audiences take up the online offer that figure will reduce of its own accord.”

On the requirement to air BBC3 content on BBC1 and BBC2 he said the Trust would expect BBC3 programmes to air “across the schedule” on BBC1 and BBC2, with around two hours a week airing across BBC1 and BBC2.

Ayre said: “During the consultation some respondents feared that the BBC might schedule BBC3 content in the wee small hours of the morning for example. So we tightened that restriction to say that long form content must appear throughout the schedule across BBC1 and BBC2 in substantial numbers.”

BBC3’s digital controller Damian Kavanagh said: “BBC3 is not closing, we are reinventing online. We will not be a scheduled 7pm to 4am linear broadcast TV channel but we will be everywhere else giving you the freedom to choose what to watch when you want.”

He is adamant that commissions in the vein of Asian Provocateur, Josh and Murder In Succesville will continue  – “content that makes [viewers] think, makes them laugh and gives them a voice” as he puts it.

He added: “We will launch new content strands centred on topics that matter to young people like relationships, online life, crime and health.  These are in development but we will issue a detailed brief to independent production companies very soon detailing what we are looking for and how to pitch ideas.

“But most importantly we will put young people at the heart of new BBC3 making them part of decision making, giving them a voice and a say in what we do.”

There is also a glimmer of light for very young audiences in today’s decision.

The closure of BBC3 has freed up broadcast spectrum for CBBC which means that the channel’s hours have been extended from 7pm to 9pm when BBC3 closes in March.

However, as expected, the Trust has rejected the BBC’s proposal to replace the channel space of BBC3 with a BBC+1 catch-up service.

The Trust reported today that the proposal to establish BBC1+1 was “at odds with a broader shift” to online viewing and would have an “adverse market impact on commercial channels”. Another reason was that 24% of UK television households would need to upgrade their equipment in order to receive the +1 channel.

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Taverne added: “The decision to close a TV channel is a difficult one, and one we have not taken lightly. The BBC must adapt with its audiences; the evidence is very clear that younger audiences are watching more online and less linear TV. The plans enable the BBC to deliver more distinctive content online, while bearing down on costs; to address concerns about the impact of moving BBC3 online, we have set new requirements for programmes for younger audiences on BBC1 and 2.”